Murder By Death

Murder By Death - February 2012

Murder By Death Session
Violitionist Sessions

Session Date: February 1, 2012
Posting Date: February 6, 2012
Artist Hometown: Bloomington, IN
Links:, Facebook
Recorded by: Michael Briggs

Three Men Hanging
No Oath, No Spell
ONE: You just recorded a new album. How did it go? How was working with John Congleton?
Adam Turla: It was great!
Sarah Balliet: It went great.
Adam: He’s got a lot of opinions, and I like that. He’s a person who hears something once, and immediately has an opinion about whether he likes it or doesn’t like it, and knows why he doesn’t like it. One of the things I liked about him was that he’s the kind of person who hears something and says, “That’s not weird enough!” or “That’s not unique enough!” He is constantly seeking to do something…even if it sounds fine, he’ll try to make it a little weirder, and that’s the sort of attitude that we were hoping for from a producer for this record.
Sarah: Yeah, he says that he seeks out the peculiar. That really appealed to us. That’s exactly what we want for this record and for these songs.
Adam: There’s a couple moments where there’s an odd choice…where maybe it’s not the most perfect vocal pass, or maybe…there was this one thing Sarah did. At the last minute, as we were recording the song, she changed this cello note on a song called “Ditch Lilly” to be super abrasive and…
Sarah: Dissonant.
Adam: Completely dissonant, like it doesn’t fit at all, and John said, “I love that! Let’s make it even more strange!”
Sarah: Yeah, I was nervous about it, because I was playing this really boring part, and I fiddled around with it and I came up with this really weird idea, and I was like, “Oh, they’re going to hate this!”
Adam: But we loved it! And we actually played it up, and it now becomes this great moment in the song. It’s a sort of beautiful song with creepy undertones which, well, there’s a lot of that on this record. But, now the song has a great moment where all of a sudden it’s just complete dissonance assaulting your ears for three seconds, and then it’s back into the regular song. It’s got a cool effect, and very unique.
DJ: Some of your other records have had stories to them. Does this one have a narrative or any overarching theme?
Adam: In a way, yes. We tried not to actively write a straightforward narrative. This one definitely has…We were talking about afterwards, and I knew what I thought the record was about, but I thought that it was interesting to hear what everyone else in the band thought now that they had heard all of the lyrics a bunch of times, and had thought about it, and Matt said, “It kind of reminds me of a David Lynch, small-town, seedy underbelly thing.” And it’s very much an American album in that it’s set in small-town America, and there are a bunch of songs about that, and about development…There’s sort of two main voices that appear throughout the album. One is a decent, regular person, and the other one is a horrible monster, and I sing as this monster at times, and it’s interesting to have those creepy undertones.
Sarah: But if you do try to make sense of it as a narrative, it’ll make about as much sense as a David Lynch movie. I think that’s what Matt was trying to say.
Adam: Yeah, it’s more of like snapshots, it’s not one story, but that’s kind of what we wanted.
Sarah: It doesn’t have to make sense.
Adam: We wanted something that linked all of the songs, but not something that forced you to have to…
Sarah: It gives a feeling, more than anything else.
Adam: It’s pretty wild. It’s the first record we’ve made since we added Scott to the band, who’s playing accordion, piano, trumpet, mandolin, percussion, and lots of backup vocals. I mean, this record is sonically so much more interesting than anything we’ve been able to do in the past because of the sheer amount of possibilities, so we’ve really used that. We did some real desolate bruisers that are more like “Three Men Hanging,” which you asked us to play. There’s more stuff that sounds like Who Will Survive…, just barren, depressing music.
DJ: I really love that record!
Adam: Cool! I think that people who like that record will probably like this one the most of any of the ones since then.
Sarah: Yeah, I think so, too.
Adam: It’s just got that sort of feeling. There’s some bruisers on this one! But, there’s also some of the more upbeat numbers that we also enjoy doing, so…It’s interesting. We were just looking at our strengths and just saying, “Which songs do we really like? I want to do more songs like that.” We wrote the songs based on what we wanted.
DJ: With the cello so deeply entrenched in the songs and sound of the band, how collaborative is the songwriting process?
Sarah: Adam writes most of the songs, at least in their basic form. The lyrics, acoustic guitar, you know. He writes like a singer-songwriter would write a song, and then he brings it to us, and we craft a sound around it. Sometimes we have more to do with the finished product than others. Sometimes Adam says, “I know exactly how I want this to go. I want a drum beat that sounds like this,” you know.
Adam: Just follow me!
Sarah: Yeah, sometimes it’s like that, and then sometimes it’s like…
Adam: Mess this up! Screw up this song for me!
Sarah: Yeah, he’s like, “I have these ideas, let’s totally take this apart and put it back together.” It’s really varied how we’ll do it. Sometimes Adam and I sit down and talk about ideas, sometimes I come to him with an idea, but most of the time it’s him.
Adam: Also, on this new record, Sarah wrote one of the songs. Well, she started the song, and then sort of handed it over to me, and I did whatever I did to it, and then Scott, our new guy, also did the same thing, and they came out awesome. They’re really great. Another thing that’s different is that of the twelve songs on the record, I don’t play guitar for three of them, which is very unique for us. One of them is just vocals and mandolin, on one of them Sarah is playing lap steel and I’m just singing, and on another one I’m playing the Wurlitzer and singing while Scott plays a coronet part and harmonizing with the cello. So, it’s exciting because we’re getting to do, with a fifth member, we’re getting to leave some more open spaces in places, while also having some really lush moments.
TWO: You recently acquired the rights to your first two albums…
Adam: That’s right. It’s a mixed blessing.
DJ: How do you mean?
Sarah: Just that…it’s nice to own them, but it’s a shame that we had to own them.
DJ: I assume there was some bad blood, or something?
Adam: No, it’s weird, it’s not bad blood, it’s just…
Sarah: Just a dysfunctional…
Adam: The economy…things were just going bad. I honestly just don’t want to talk shit.
DJ: Sure, of course.
Adam: I probably shouldn’t have said anything. We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to re-release them. Back in the day, you know, I would have made sure that we were out on CD again right away, because people still buy those records a lot…but most people are buying digital now, and we already owned the vinyl rights, so…you know, this year is the tenth anniversary of Like the Exorcist… and next year is the tenth of Who Will Survive…, so I’m thinking maybe we just wait, and then do something fun and special.
DJ: Are you releasing those yourselves? Are you also planning to release the new album yourselves?
Adam: That’s a good question. We’re not necessarily planning to release the old ones ourselves. We’re leaving it open right now. The new record…We’re not exactly sure what we’re doing. We honestly just wanted to make the record first, and then find a home for it. I don’t think we’ll have any problem getting it out…well…fingers crossed.
Sarah: You’d better knock on wood! [Laughs]
Adam: Yeah, we have options, we’re just trying to figure out what we want to do. We have a new manager, and we’re just letting him do whatever he wants to do, and then I’ll say, “I like that idea,” or “No!”
Sarah: Hopefully it will just all happen quickly.
Adam: So, we’re waiting on that one. It’s just a weird time for the industry, you know? It’s strange when you have a history like we do, where we know that people will buy the record, so that seems like an advantage, but in another way we have been around a long time, and I guess we have hopes and expectations for a record, more so than a brand new band who just signed to a label would have. It’s just one of those things you learn as you are involved in the industry for a long time. Honestly, I wish that I didn’t have to do any of it and I could just write and record, and play shows, but…
THREE: On your website, you ask people to book you shows in strange places. How is that working out?
Adam: Not as well as I thought it would, actually, but we have done some pretty great shows. We did a tour of Alaska this summer, and that was rad.
DJ: Is your upcoming tour of Australia a part of that request, or was that booked like a traditional tour?
Adam: I think by putting that out there…It didn’t hurt, because the promoter came to us.
Sarah: I think it’s just well-known that we want to go everywhere, so that can’t hurt.
Adam: The problem is, bringing a full band to a faraway place is really expensive, so we usually— unless there’s some awesome combination of events, like an independently wealthy person, or a fund from the country, it has to be a show that will make money, and it’s hard to get an indie band to make enough money to pay for that sort of thing. So, it depends. It has turned out…I mean, we’ve played Majorca, the island off of Spain; and Sardinia, the Italian island; we did the Virgin Islands, and we did Alaska. The tour of Alaska was awesome.
Sarah: Very cool.
Adam: We played a lodge in a city that’s three hours from the nearest city and has a population of 22 people, and like 150 people drove out to see us play on the floor of this lodge, in a room about this big. Well, maybe twice as big, but…It was nuts. There was an old bearded guy who looks like a miner from the 1920’s sitting in the front row rocking out, while like 20-something adventurer, mountain climbing kids are crowd-surfing. It was awesome.
Sarah: And there were dogs everywhere.
Adam: Yeah! We rode into town on the back of a military truck, because we had to go across this bridge that normal cars aren’t allowed on. When we pulled into town, everyone was waiting in the streets because we were so late, because our 1979 Winnebago broke down.
Sarah: It was like 9:30 or 10PM, but totally broad daylight, because it was that time of year, the solstice.
Adam: And there were like 20 dogs in the street, and 150 drunk people who just started cheering as we pulled up. It felt like we were in a parade! And then we played the show, and it was so much fun.
Sarah: Very surreal. So, that has worked, and also has not.
DJ: Well, in case any independently wealthy persons are reading this, is there any place where you would like someone to book you?
Sarah: Everywhere.
Adam: Sure! I’d love to go to South Africa, South America for that matter. We’ve never been to Asia in any way, so…Sarah and I have been to Nepal to visit a friend but not…Just the real faraway places would be great.
Sarah: Brazil.
Adam: Brazil, yeah. I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people in Brazil who are into the band. I was surprised by that.
Sarah: We just want to go everywhere.
Adam: Anywhere we haven’t been, and some of the places we have.
– Interview and transcription by Dale Jones